Moralistic Therapeutic Deists

I know it’s a bit of a mouthful, but moralistic therapeutic deists is the term that’s being used to describe many young people growing up in evangelical churches in the United States. It’s highlighted in a recent study by Kenda Creasy Dean, a professor at Princeton Theological Seminary, who says that the religion of many American teens is actually “fake Christian”.

The report says that if you’re the parent of a Christian teenager your child may be following a “mutant” form of Christianity, and you may be responsible. Dean says more American teenagers are embracing what she calls “moralistic therapeutic deism.” Translation: It’s a watered-down faith that portrays God as a “divine therapist” whose chief goal is to boost people’s self-esteem.

As many churches start their “autumn and winter’s work” especially with youth organisations, this report makes us think again about what kind of beliefs we are actually teaching our children and young people.

Moralistic therapeutic deism was first coined by author Christian Smith of the University of Notre Dame to describe the common religious beliefs among American youth. It was reported in 2005 his book, Soul Searching: the religious and spiritual lives of American teenagers. The research project, entitled the National Study of Youth and Religion, was funded by Lilly Endowment Inc. It found that many young people believed in several moral statutes not exclusive to any of the major world religions:

  1. A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth.
  2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
  3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
  4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.
  5. Good people go to heaven when they die.

These points of belief were compiled from interviews with approximately 3,000 young teenagers. The authors say the system is “moralistic” because it “is about inculcating a moralistic approach to life. It teaches that central to living a good and happy life is being a good, moral person.” The authors describe the system as being “about providing therapeutic benefits to its adherent” as opposed to being about things like “repentance from sin, of keeping the Sabbath, of living as a servant of a sovereign divine, of steadfastly saying one’s prayers, of faithfully observing high holy days, of building character through suffering….”

And last, the authors say it is “about belief in a particular kind of God: one who exists, created the world, and defines our general moral order, but not one who is particularly personally involved in one’s affairs–especially affairs in which one would prefer not to have God involved.” Although a God that is available to intercede in our lives is classically theistic, the authors choose to call this a form of Deism. They say that “the Deism here is revised from its classical eighteenth-century version by the therapeutic qualifier, making the distant God selectively available for taking care of needs.” It views God as “something like a combination Divine Butler and Cosmic Therapist: he’s always on call, takes care of any problems that arise, professionally helps his people to feel better about themselves, and does not become too personally involved in the process.”

The authors believe that “a significant part of Christianity in the United States is actually only tenuously Christian in any sense that is seriously connected to the actual historical Christian tradition, but has rather substantially morphed into Christianity’s misbegotten stepcousin, Christian Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.”

It seems that whatever else we communicate to our young people, we need to ensure that they understand the Gospel of grace. We are sinners. We need a Saviour. We cannot be our own saviours by our own performance. And out of love and gratitude to the One who is our Saviour and Lord, we march to the beat of his drum, not the rhythms of this world.

PCUSA General Assembly

Here is a sample of what went on at this year’s PCUSA’s General Assembly. People dressed up as animals, and figures from what looks like a Mardi Gras procession, mixed with ministers and others in an attempt to celebrate what apologists for this scene say is just PCUSA’s way of paying homage to “native American spirituality”. It all looks a bit pagan to me, and certainly out of place in a denomination that claims to be Christian and reformed.

PCUSA General Assembly

Here’s another event, a communion service, with the “big puppets” to the fore, and some form of liturgical dance. Whatever changes the PCI’s Arrangements Committee contemplate for our General Assembly, I hope they don’t go down this road.

Given the other decisions and proposals of the General Assembly with regard to Christian marriage and the place of practising homosexuals in leadership, it seems that PCUSA has drifted away from its biblical and reformed roots. But some people have been pointing that out for many years.


biblefresh2011 will mark the 400th anniversary of the publication of the Authorised (King James) Version of the Bible. Already there are plans to celebrate that anniversary, not merely as a backward-looking, nostaglic exercise, but to show the continuing relevance of the Bible to modern life. In an initiative called biblefresh, Wycliffe Bible Translators, Scripture Union, The Bible Society and a number of other organisations are working together to affirm how the Bible can transform our lives, our churches, our communities and our world. It is a project that all Bible-believing churches should support.

I have been thinking about how our own congregation could participate in this initiative and how we could encourage more people to engage seriously with the truth of the Bible. Someone wrote on facebook recently that many Christians treat the Bible like the licence for a piece of new software. They scroll to the bottom and tick the “I Agree” button without ever reading it or realising the implications of their affirmation.

The belief in the authority of the Bible has been attacked consistently by unbelievers. What is surprising is that some of the attacks against the authority of the Bible are now coming from within evangelicalism. Al Mohler points out one of the recent developments in the debate on biblical inerrancy. He summarises the situation in his usual lucid way.

We now confront open calls to accept and affirm that there are indeed errors in the Bible. It is demanded that we accept the fact that the human authors of the Bible often erred because of their limited knowledge and erroneous assumptions about reality. We must, it is argued, abandon the claim that the Bible is a consistent whole. Rather, we are told to accept the claims that the human authors of Scripture were just plain wrong in some texts — even in texts that define God and his ways. We are told that some texts are just “down-right sinister or evil.”

And, note clearly, we are told that we must do this in order to save Evangelicalism from an intellectual disaster.

Of course, accepting this demand amounts to a theological disaster of incalculable magnitude. Rarely has this been more apparent and undeniable. The rejection of the Bible’s inerrancy will please the evangelical revisionists, but it will rob the church of its secure knowledge that the Bible is indeed true, trustworthy and fully authoritative.

Mohler is repeating a call which was made many years ago. In his sermon on Ephesians 6:14 preached in Westminster Chapel, London in the 1960s, Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones alerted the church to the implications of a diluted view of the authority of the Bible.

There can be no doubt whatsoever that all the troubles in the Church today, and most of the troubles in the world, are due to a departure from the authority of the Bible. And, alas, it was the Church herself that led in the so-called Higher Criticism that came from Germany just over a hundred years ago. Human philosophy took the place of revelation, man’s opinions were exalted and Church leaders talked about ‘the advance of knowledge and science’, and ‘the assured results’ of such knowledge. The Bible then became a book just like any other book, out-of-date in certain respects, wrong in other respects, and so on. It was no longer a book on which you could rely implicitly.

There is no question at all that the falling away, even in Church attendance, in this country is the direct consequence of the Higher Criticism. The man in the street says, ‘What do these Christians know? It is only their opinion, they are just perpetrating something that the real thinkers and scientists have long since seen through and have stopped considering’. Such is the attitude of the man in the street! He does not listen any longer, he has lost all interest. The whole situation is one of drift; and very largely, I say, it is the direct and immediate outcome of the doubt that has been cast by the Church herself upon her only real authority. Men’s opinions have taken the place of God’s truth, and the people in their need are turning to the cults, and are listening to any false authority that offers itself to them.

We all therefore have to face this ultimate and final question: Do we accept the Bible as the Word of God, as the sole authority in all matters of faith and practice, or do we not? Is the whole of my thinking governed by Scripture, or do I come with my reason and pick and choose out of Scripture and sit in judgment upon it, putting myself and modern knowledge forward as the ultimate standard and authority? The issue is crystal clear. Do I accept Scripture as a revelation from God, or do I trust to speculation, human knowledge, human learning, human understanding and human reasons Or, putting it still more simply, Do I pin my faith to, and subject all my thinking to, what I read in the Bible? Or do I defer to modern knowledge, to modern learning, to what people think today, to what we know at this present time which was not known in the past? It is inevitable that we occupy one or the other of those two positions.

Perhaps the biblefresh initiative will help Christians think again about this important and fundamental issue of the role of God’s Word in our lives and in our world. We may even pray the Book of Common Prayer’s collect for the second Sunday in Advent with new meaning and freshness:

Blessed Lord, who caused all Scripture to be written for our learning: help us so to hear them, read, mark, learn and inwardly digest them, that through the patience and comfort of your holy Word we may embrace and ever hold fast the hope of eternal life, which you have given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

PMS update

pmslogo_smallI was able to speak with one of the officials at the Northern Ireland Office today and found the conversation encouraging. All options for a resolution of the Presbyterian Mutual Society crisis are being actively pursued by the Ministerial Working Group chaired by the Secretary of State.

The Secretary of State is aware of the urgency of the situation, given the age profile of the PMS savers, and the PMS crisis is at the top of his list of priorities. Officials are meeting on a weekly basis and the Ministerial Working Group is due to meet again on September 8. HM Treasury are also working on the crisis along with the First Minister and deputy First Minister and other ministers in the Northern Ireland Executive. The NIO ministers are very determined to do what the Prime Minister promised, namely to bring about a just and fair settlement for all PMS savers.

We must continue to pray for our Secretary of State, the Northern Ireland Executive Ministers, the Administrator, and all the officials who are working on seeking a good resolution. The crisis continues to cause major anxiety and distress for many good people who entrusted their savings to the PMS. They need relief and a settlement as soon as possible.

A recent report underlines why the situation has been so painful for PMS savers. When a significant number of people have had to dip into their savings in order to get through the current recession, PMS savers have not had that privilege.

Church House refurbishment

imgres-1The frustration of some Presbyterian Mutual Society  savers surfaced again this week with the strong suggestion that the Presbyterian Church should abandon the internal refurbishment of its Church House headquarters in Belfast and re-direct the money to a fund which would alleviate the plight of long-suffering PMS savers. The frustration is totally understandable, but the call for the re-allocation of funds is ill-conceived.

It’s worth remembering the following points:

  • the decision not to sell Church House, but to re-furbish it, pre-dates the PMS crisis. Having taken that decision, the denomination was committed to following through with the refurbishment.
  • once funds are raised for a particular project within the church, they cannot be re-directed or re-allocated. Those who give to the refurbishment of Church House may not want their money to be used for any other cause, however worthy it may be.
  • the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, when asked to make a contribution to a hardship fund for PMS savers, responded positively and generously.
  • the amount of money being raised for the refurbishment of Church House would not resolve the PMS crisis on its own. It would only make sense to raise a contribution of such amounts in the context of a larger, more comprehensive package that would rescue all PMS savers.

In spite of all the frustration and anxiety being experienced, it seems to me that PMS savers need to stay focused on the goal which we have consistently aimed for, namely the restitution of 100p in the £ to every PMS saver. It is easy to take cheap shots at the denomination. We need to remember that as savers, whether individuals or congregations, we are all in this together, and that our best strategy is to stay “on message” and press for a solution that will deliver the only just and fair outcome.

The Prime Minister’s pledge provides the context in which we expect HM Government to act and to bring this sad and tragic saga to a good and satisfactory conclusion.